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Monitor or Mirror? A review of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop”

Clifford Nass has been studying human relations by looking at how humans relate to machines. The answers coming from experiments documented in his book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop are an interesting mix of the unexpected and the familiar. You might think that it would take no time to read a 207 page book. Warning; this book makes one stop every so many pages to think about what it says. Not because it is difficult or obscure; the writing is clear and the presentation precise throughout but the points Nass makes are applicable to anyone who is not a complete hermit.

When the folks at Penguin suggested this book for review by rgbFilter my first reaction was, “Right, our tags for “mobile computing” got mixed up with the laptop in the title and our name ended up on a list.” But as I got into it I realized that a lot of our readers will find this book not just interesting but useful. “Pixel pushers” are a wide ranging group including graphic artists, editors, video/film makers, digital photographers/illustrators, animators, game designers/players and IT professionals. That relationship to technology and interface design puts us immediately where this book starts.

Nass noted that in studies where people were asked to evaluate a computer’s performance they were invariably prone to rating a machine that they regularly worked on higher than a machine that they were working at strictly for the evaluation. This result held up even when there was no difference in software, technical performance, make or model. This result was the same for sophisticated, computer users (university trained computer science students) as it was for subjects whose involvement with computers was casual or strictly work oriented. The degree of identification was so marked that Nass and his colleagues have been able to successfully use computers in psychological studies where the computer was sometimes quite literally being treated as a person by test subjects.

This first, key premise might be hard to accept. However, in study after study Nass found that people constantly read human intention into computers even when they were told that the machine was doing nothing of the sort. This allowed him to use computers as “confederates” in studies that either confirmed accepted results from psychological studies done with only human participants or go into new areas of investigation with greater precision.

Nass and his co-writer Corina Yen have laid out their results and insights in a set form. They start with a problem or general topic (What is the best way deliver criticism in the workplace? Why don’t team building exercises work? Designing an on line assistant/help program. Etc.), Then they describe the study/experiment using human-computer interaction with it’s variables and controls. Finally there are the results and where they stand against current thinking.

In many of the studies the level of interaction is text based but some use games, synthetic speech and in some cases visuals. One study even used a facial morphing program to blend subjects’ faces with those of political candidates to test the approval ratings for the candidates. The results of that study are sobering; people like people who look like them and if somebody ever does this kind of thing on a mass scale…well let’s just hope that the guy that tries isn’t totally evil because a lot of people will end up voting for him.

This book is well worth the time spent with it and worth returning to. It’s focus runs closely with current corporate concerns but even free lance “pixel pushers” find themselves dealing with teams on various projects and there are a number of points in the book about team dynamics, leadership and the hazards of group think that the book addresses directly. When Alan Turing first suggested the “Turing Test” he imagined computers far more capable than our current level. Prof. Nass seems to have found that for many people the Turing Test’s goal of recognising a computer as an intelligent being has already begun for many people without them fully admitting it.

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